Failure to search title leads to disastrous result

Standard

Fourth Circuit unpublished opinion weighs in on SC tax sale issue

South Carolina appellate courts will overturn tax sales on the flimsiest of technicalities. In a recent unpublished opinion of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a tax sale was not overturned, but the result was almost the same for the tax sale purchaser who failed to search the title.

Remember that an unpublished opinion has no precedential value, but this case is particularly interesting to South Carolina dirt lawyers who understand the necessity of searching titles. Thanks to my friend and real estate litigator extraordinaire Jim Koutrakos who sent this case to me.

Guardian Tax SC, LLC v. Day* involved a Charleston County tax sale. Ralph and Virginia Day bought property in Charleston in 1991. In 2006, the Days mortgaged the property to Bank of New York Mellon. Between 2005 and 2007, the Days failed to pay their federal income taxes, and beginning in 2010, they failed to pay -county taxes.

In 2016, the Day’s title was subject to three interests: (1) the county tax lien; (2) the mortgage; and (3) the federal tax lien. By operation of law (S.C. Code §12-49-10), the county tax lien took priority. The mortgage had a higher priority than the federal tax lien because it was recorded first. Charleston County sold the property to Guardian through a tax sale that year.

The County did not notify the bank or the United States of the tax sale, but it did publish notice in a local newspaper. Guardian’s purchase of the property satisfied the County lien and generated approximately $1.6 million in excess proceeds. The Days owed approximately $3.5 million to the bank and their federal tax liabilities totaled approximately $2.9 million.

After the tax sale, the County searched the title and notified the Days and the bank of their one-year statutory redemption period. The County did not notify the United States nor inform Guardian of the notices it sent to the Days and the bank. Neither the Days nor the bank redeemed the property. At some point after the expiration of the period of redemption, Guardian searched the title and discovered for the first time the interests of the bank and the United States. Guardian filed a quiet title action which was removed to federal court by the United States.

Guardian, the bank, and the United States filed competing motions for summary judgment. Guardian and the bank argued over the excess proceeds, and Guardian argued that the federal tax lien was extinguished by the tax sale or, alternatively, the United States should be awarded a 120 day right of redemption.

The district court agreed with the bank that it was entitled to the proceeds and agreed with the United States that its lien was valid and that a right of redemption was not appropriate. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the tax sale was nonjudicial and that the United States’ lien survived the tax sale because it did not receive the required notice. Further, because of the lack of notice, the redemption period never began to run.

Both courts rejected Guardian’s argument that the federal lien should be extinguished because of South Carolina equitable principles because federal law governs the enforcement of federal tax liens. The Court of Appeals quoted the District Court’s jab that there is “nothing inequitable about the outcome” because Guardian could have avoided the result by engaging in due diligence prior to the tax sale by searching the title, a “minimal burden.”

*United States District Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Unpublished Opinion No. 21-1411 (August 23, 2022)

Here’s a great idea!

Standard

The official who records our deeds should not be selected via popularity contest!

I’m all about the democratic process. But when it comes to the Register of Deeds, I believe that person should be appointed locally based on a very specific skill set. Popularity and politics should have nothing to do with choosing the appropriate person to handle the very meticulous administrative process that deals with recording public documents.

Apparently, the Executive Committee of the Charleston County Bar Association wants to take action to make sure the ROD for Charleston County is qualified. Take a look at this letter that body wrote to County Council on January 19.

If you follow this blog, you know that the Finkel Firm has brought suit against the Charleston County ROD asking for a writ of mandamus based on the horrific lag involved with recording documents in that county. This letter provides additional evidence that something is terribly wrong in the Charleston County ROD office, and action needs to be taken sooner rather than later.

As this letter points out, South Carolina is a race notice state. If our deeds, mortgages and other documents are not recorded in a timely manner and in the proper order, then the proper priorities among parties is thrown to the wind. The rights of parties relating to real property are based on when the documents establishing those rights are properly recorded.

The letter lists eighteen counties where the RODs are currently appointed. The letter also states that no constitutional provision or statutory edict requires an election in this case.

What do you think? Should the Register of Deeds be appointed by County Council?

Court decides an interesting, but unpublished, case on the effect of a plat notation

Standard

Unpublished opinions don’t typically get my attention, but my friend, Bill Booth, sent this one* to me because he found it interesting, and I do, too. As a reminder, unpublished opinions have no precedential value, but they sometimes provide insight on how the Court might react in a similar situation, at least under the current makeup of the court.

The issue in this case was whether a notation on a subdivision plat that certain lots were “for agricultural use only” created a valid restriction of the use of the lots. Mikell Scarborough, Master-in-Equity for Charleston County, granted summary judgment, relying on extrinsic evidence to conclude that there was no intent to create a restriction despite the plain language on the face of the plat. That decision was affirmed.

The Court cited familiar cases holding that restrictive covenants are contractual in nature and must be strictly construed in favor of the free use of property. The Court also referred to cases holding that when a deed describes land as shown on a plat, the plat becomes a part of the deed. The interesting twist became whether the plat notation created an ambiguity that would allow the introduction of extrinsic evidence.

The Court found that the language in the plat was not ambiguous, but that the origin of the note created the ambiguity. The surveyor provided an affidavit to the effect that the Charleston County Planning Commission placed the agricultural use restriction on the plat “for the purpose of indicating that Charleston County would not, at that time, approve building permits for the lots because (the lots in question) did not meet current minimum standards for a modified conventional sub-service disposal system.”

When the plat was submitted for approval, the property owners included a letter explaining they were aware that the land possessed poor soil conditions for septic systems. The letter requested that the subdivision be approved with the stipulation that any lot that did not support a septic system would be restricted from becoming a building lot until public sewer service became available.

The case doesn’t make this point clear, but I am assuming the Appellant sued other lot owners who had built on their lots despite the plat notation. In other words, the Appellant wanted the restriction enforced as to other lots, not the lot the Appellant purchased. Interestingly, one house had been built before the Appellant purchased its lot.

A representative of the Appellant claimed he relied on the plat notation and that his title insurance company told him the lots were restricted. The Court found it significant, however, that the property owners who recorded the plat did not intend to restrict the property.

The Appellant argued that the deeds for all the lots specifically state that the property is subject to all restrictions, reservations, easements and other limitations that appear of record, including on the Plat. The Court held, citing 20 Am. Jur. 2d Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions §151 (2015) that common “subject to” language does not create a restriction where none exists.

The Appellant also argued that an agricultural use exception in the title insurance policy was evidence that the restriction ran with the land, but the Court held that the title insurance company was merely noting the provision was on the plat so that it would not be liable if the Appellant could not build on its lot.  

The Court concluded that the record does not contain a scintilla of evidence to support the imposition of a building restriction on the Respondents’ lots.

Carpenter Braselton, LLC v. Roberts, South Carolina Court of Appeals Unpublished Opinion No. 2021-UP-280.